The end game against ISIS is very messy
by Stephen Bryen
On December 7th 2016 Coalition Forces (otherwise not identified) bombed Mosul’s largest and most important hospital. As of this writing there is little information about the number of casualties. What the Coalition has told us is that the hospital was being used by ISIS fighters and, at the request of Iraq’s armed forces, the Coalition struck the hospital. The Coalition claimed it did not know if there were civilians in the hospital, or doctors for that matter. But given the intensity of the fighting and the large number of casualties on all sides, you can be pretty sure there were. Any medical facility, even the most primitive, is filled with the wounded.
This attack comes on the heels of another one, this carried out ostensibly by Iraq’s air force. This was in the near-border town of Qaim, in Anbar province. There three airstrikes hit a busy market, killing 55 civilians, among them 12 women and 19 children. According to press reports, 8 “militants” (meaning ISIS fighters) were killed and deposited in the town morgue.
These attacks, and others like them, have been happening with increasing frequency because the enemy, mostly ISIS but other Islamists as well, often embed themselves in public buildings, hospitals, market places, mosques, schools and homes. And they do other things to make a community a human shield which has two effects: it makes it hard to eradicate the ISIS or Islamic threat because of civilian casualties; it helps turn the civilian population, as battered as it has been by these nefarious fighters, willing to accept the Islamists if only they will be left alone.
The US has been fond of complaining to Israel often, loudly and publicly when Israel retaliated against rocket attacks on its civilian population by Hamas and Hezbollah. In particular, the US has bought forward these complaints, as in Gaza, even when there was significant mitigating evidence showing that many of the “casualties” were staged by Hamas. But that did not prevent the State Department, the President and the UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon from condemning the Israeli air strikes.
On the other hand, when Saudi Arabia carried out either singly or in a coalition strike in Yemen blasting a funeral, killing a large number of men, women and children, Washington kept its mouth shut, and so did the hypocritical UN.
All of this tells us that there is a double standard that is very troubling. The United States, including the President and the Secretary of State, constantly complain about Russia’s attacks in Aleppo, which are hard to defend rationally. But they have very little moral authority to bring to the table when hospitals, schools, market places, weddings and plenty of other targets are struck by US or US-supported air attacks.
Even so, it is true that the US has been among the better states in trying to make sure that it targets real terrorists. But such care, no matter how admirable, cannot prevent mistakes nor can it replace real military necessity. The Mosul hospital could be explained by military necessity; certainly the attack meant that the Coalition (led by the United States) needed to get a waiver of the usual policy to carry out the strike.
What is even more clear is that the end game of eradicating ISIS is very messy. No doubt somewhere there is a tradeoff between casualties now, and casualties later if we don’t counter-attack effectively. These strikes are the unfortunate price that needs to be paid, no matter how offensive to our moral standards and our religious traditions. It would just be nice that once in a while American politicians, along with their colleagues in Europe, Turkey and in the UN treated Israel fairly. Israeli rules of engagement are, remarkably, even more stringent that ours, and the problem they face borders on the existential whereas we can walk away if we decide to do so.